The Universal Productivity Trap

Take a moment. Notice the big pile of tasks you have to do. Go ahead, take a look. I’ll wait.

What happened? Look closely because it was likely fast and subtle. Though the sequence of thoughts and emotions you had is unique to you, you probably landed on one of two common reactions. You either had an impulse to start working on the tasks or the desire to push away from or numb yourself to them.

In our headlong rush to get stuff done each day, we damage to our own effectiveness when we dive into our tasks. We push ourselves to get stuff done. Because it is so common, let’s call this the “Universal Productivity Trap (UPT).” We’ll explore the trap (in both its main and alternate forms) in this post then see the ways out of the trap in another post.

Are you in this trap?

Most people will say, “Oh, yes, that’s me. I do that.” If you put in long hours at work, want more work-life balance, have minor or major stress-related health issues, if you feel bad, or if you ever wonder, “Is this all there is?” then you are likely in this trap.

Another form The alternative to the main form of the UPT is called “stalling.” Instead of rushing ahead, we stop acting. We put our head in the sand. Or we get busy doing something to distract ourselves from our list of to dos. This version of UPT has been called laziness, slacking, and “a sure sign of poor birth.” 🙂 Most of us experience both forms of UPT at different times. The mechanics and ways out are the same regardless of which version you’re noticing.

How it works

Here’s how the UPT typically works. It happens mostly through habitual (usually subconscious) thought.

  • We start our day by noticing the list ever-growing list of things to get done and, in one way or another, panic. (You might object to the word ‘panic.’ The neurochemicals rushing though your body when you notice the list, though, would say it’s an accurate word.)
  • We believe (that is, we use a thought habit that has worked for us in the past) that the way out of this panic is to get into action. So we plunge in. (Or, we choose to stall. See above.)
  • As we work through the day, we and others generate more things for us to do.
  • Instead of having a sense of relief because we managed to get something done we get more panic from that growing list.
  • We experience even more panic because we suspect that there are things to do lurking in our inbox, in our meeting notes, or from recent conversations.
  • We go to bed exhausted and/or panicked. We wake up the next day and repeat the process.

Escaping the trap

There are at least three escape routes from the UPT.

Each escape route uses the mantra, “Slow down to speed up.” If you are in the “must push harder” form of the trap, slowing down probably sounds like the last thing you’d want to do.  If you are in the “let’s avoid this” version of the trap, “speeding up” doesn’t sound appealing to you.

None the less, these escape routes work and are simple to use. The most difficulty you’ll have is believing you’re allowed to use them.

More about these escape routes in the next post.


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